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On education, less talk, more action: commentary

JC Bowman serves as the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Brentwood, Tennessee.

By J.C. Bowman

With all due respect to the great Toby Keith, this commentary isn’t about country music.  As most citizens are aware, we are in the midst of political season.  And it will only likely increase in rhetoric moving forward until that Tuesday right after the first Monday in November 2016.  What we need is a little less talk and a lot more action from elected leaders.

Every politician in America is for the education of children. Common sense reminds us there is no “one size fits all” approach to public education, but we will hear ideas from politicians that will want to enable state and federal education agencies, rather than empower those doing the work at the local level in education.  If we conduct polls, it is always other schools rather than the ones in our own community that people are unsatisfied with. That is fascinating.  And it is what politicians and those spinning the message capitalize on with voters.  We have to fix some school 50 miles away, so we punish the whole system and give more power to the state.

The balance between accountability and responsibility has been lost after federal programs No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top dominated public policy.  Dr. Allene Magill, Executive Director at the Professional Association of Georgia Educators points out that the “measure, pressure and punish model sets our students, teachers and schools up for failure.”

I was recently talking with a school board member in Nashville who I deeply respect.  I told her public schools have an incredible product and unparalleled success and need to tell that story.  But they have to be perfect every single day.  For example, if a child one time is let off at a wrong bus stop, it condemns an entire system. That is a problem most private schools do not have to face.  In addition, teachers in private schools know that they have the support of the administration and the parents.  Give public school teachers the same level of support and they will thrive.  Likewise, we must explore ways to give school districts more freedom from state and federal control.

Education Historian Diane Ravitch remarked:  “For nearly 15 years, Presidents Bush and Obama and the Congress have bet billions of dollars—both federal and state– on a strategy of testing, accountability, and choice.”  Instead, what if we had passed legislation that allowed districts to seek exemptions from all state statutes, rules, and policies except those that deal with electing school boards, public meetings and records, financial disclosure, conflict-of-interest, and sunshine laws?  In return the district would establish performance goals, measures to assess progress, and a time frame for accomplishing the goals and each community would look different and innovation would thrive. Sounds like pretty conservative education policy to me.

President Obama recently made news when he acknowledged that we need to cut back on testing to only 2% per year.  Never mind that testing has increased on his watch the last seven years.  Forget all that you know, it is election season.

Tim Farley, principal of an elementary/middle school in upstate New York writes that the new Obama testing policy of 2% cap on time spent on standardized testing might increase the time spent testing students. Farley asks:  “What does that actually mean? In New York we have 180 school days and an average school day runs about 6.5 hours. If one does the math that’s 180 x 6.5 x 2% = 23.4 hours of testing. So, by law, we cannot exceed 23.4 hours of standardized testing in grades 3–8.

Farley continues:  “This begs the question — How much time do kids in grades 3–8 spend on the state tests in English Language Arts and math? If you are a general education student, you will spend roughly nine hours in a testing room for both the ELA and math tests. If you are a student with a learning disability (SWD), and you have a testing accommodation of “double time,” you get to sit in a testing location for eighteen hours. As insane as that seems, it is still 5.4 hours short of the time allowed by law. A 2% cap isn’t a step forward; it’s a giant leap backward.”

Farley concludes: “How much testing is too much? I don’t know the magic number that will give the state education departments and the U.S. Department of Education the data they supposedly need in order to determine the effectiveness of the schools, but I do know that nine hours of testing is too much for a nine-year-old, eighteen hours is abusive for nine-year-olds with a learning disability, and 23.4 hours of testing for a child at any age is criminal.”

We have been fortunate to have a great relationship with politicians on both sides of the political aisle here in Tennessee.  They understand that our focus will be on educators and children.  No educator I have ever met was afraid of being accountable for the work they do in the classroom on behalf of children.  But most educators will agree the “measure, pressure and punish model” is not working.  Yes, we have had incredible gains on tests, but can researchers honestly say that it is a result of “a strategy of testing, accountability, and choice?”

It is time to move past the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top years, and it is time politicians deliver for communities the promise of locally-controlled public education for all children.  That will bring music to voter’s ears.

JC Bowman serves as the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Brentwood, Tennessee.

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